Chefs work with all of the tastes to create balance: salt, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. We all have a special place in our hearts for salt, sweet, sour, and umami…but bitter?
Most people just scrunch their nose and turn their head. We are hardwired to dislike bitter on its own. To our ancestors, bitter went hand-in-hand with plant toxins, but we no longer need to rely on our taste buds to keep us alive.
Bitterness can be perceived as unpleasant and sharp. It’s that pungent taste you get from the shredded radicchio in a salad, or from black coffee, or from biting down on a chocolate truffle rolled in cocoa powder. It’s also how you feel when someone else gets the burnt ends at the BBQ.
Europeans drink “digestive” bitters after eating. The Chinese consider bitter tastes a vital component of every meal. Americans traditionally favor salty and sweet tastes, but salty sweet fatigue has finally set in and our palates have matured. America is finally catching up to what the rest of the world has known all along–bitterness can be complex and interesting.
Bitter Flavor Trends We’re Seeing
- Third wave coffee. This relatively new farm-to-cup approach puts the character of the coffee center stage. Hold the cream and sugar.
- Bittersweet chocolate. Single-origin, vintage, or grand cru, and almost always beautifully packaged–these snappy chocolate bars command your full attention.
- Bitter greens. Arugula and Brussels sprouts are getting a lot of love these days, but they’re not the only bitter greens that deserve some love. In an effort to avoid waste, chefs are also using the green tops from carrots, celery, and beets. If you see rapini, dandelion greens, Chinese broccoli, or mizuna, give them a try, too.
- Artisan bitters. A dash of bitters smoothes out a drink and seasons it. Modern bitters are made in endless varieties of infusions. Traditionally used in Old Fashioneds, Sazeracs, and martinis, bitters can be used creatively in any cocktail, in a vinaigrette, or even in your baking.
- Hoppy craft IPAs. Check out this list of great IPAs.
- Charred everything. Charring and smoking food creates bitterness. It’s caramelization to the extreme. BBQ lovers know how good this can taste. Now chefs are intentionally burning everything from bread to greens to desserts.
If you want to incorporate more bitter tastes into your cooking, take some suggestions from below. Remember that sweet, sour, and salt balance bitter out. Fat can also smooth it out. Think sweet BBQ sauce on charred meat, lemon juice on beet greens, salt on burnt caramel, and bacon with brussel sprouts. For more information on balancing tastes, go here.